In a photograph of September 1963, Research Librarian Marjorie Wynne can be seen seated at last, after months of anticipation during construction, at her desk in the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. She looks with characteristic acuity towards the camera, pen to hand; paper, blotter, pen stand, letter tray before her; a book truck, almost empty, to her left. She appears, as ever, busy; nonetheless she smiles towards the photographer.
Many of these very objects, the original letter trays and pen stands, the artifacts of manuscript culture, are still to be found in the offices of the Beinecke Library, having long outlived their functional if not aesthetic life in office culture. Their near equivalents can be seen in photographs of writers held in the collections: Gertrude Stein, photographed at a reading in New York, glasses on her nose, pen in hand, an ashtray, empty, to her left. And so, as well, Edith Wharton, leaning forwards in her rattan chair, perennial bed just discernible in the gardens outside her window, pen in hand, paper, blotter, letter rack within reach to her right. The desks, the scribes are not so very different from those seen in miniature, teaching and learning the arts of the quadrivium in late thirteenth-century Flanders.
Like Marjorie Wynne herself, many of the manuscripts held in the Beinecke Library collections came to the Library by crossing Wall Street, from the Rare Book Room in Yale’s Sterling Memorial Library to the new and cavernous building raised in 1963 on Hewitt Quadrangle or, as it has come to be called, Beinecke Plaza. In 1714, Elihu Yale gave the Yale College Library a manuscript, the first illuminated medieval manuscript known in an American college library. The exhibition begins with this volume, a copy of the popular theological text, Speculum humanae salvationis, or Mirror of humanity’s salvation. The book has had several interested readers: someone has in proprietary fashion written “Yale College Library 1715” on the front cover; “januarii 26 1793 perlegi hunc Librum,” or, “I did read this book,” declared Ezra Stiles, Professor of Divinity and President of the University, in the margin, signing his name with a flourish; another reader has with unambiguously disapproving hand written “Papisticus liber,” or papist book, above an illustration of Christ trampling Satan.
The exhibition begins, where the Yale College Library collection of manuscripts began, with a mirror of humanity. It ends with the manuscripts and drafts of a poet, Natasha Trethewey, whose work draws on the collections, and their peculiar resonances of ephemerality and history, the echoes of ourselves found in the persistent expressions of daily life, of love, of loss, of our complicated and often all too transparent humanity recorded with compelling directness in the manuscript and archival collections. The collections themselves are shown in their range and depth, from a fragment of papyrus from the later Roman Empire through the work of contemporary poets, organized around the relationships—love and work, time and place, the individual and authority—which manuscript culture both mirrors and reveals. In celebrating the manuscript collections of the Beinecke Library, the exhibition reaches out by hand, as we do to each other, from childhood through to the pencils and keyboards of the Beinecke reading room, through the spaces in which we know each other, always only ever in fair copy, always only ever met in draft.